Ever the Twain Shall Meet

A Proverb Revisited
a vignette by Fred Leeds

East is East and West is West, but ever the twain shall meet. This reversal of the old proverb is meant to describe my search for an Orient within. I seek a land, just beyond the rising sun, the dawning of a self at once Eastern and Western. I seek a soul of place that is one with the whole human spirit. I would treat East and West as complements in order to challenge the black and white thinking presented in the proverb. I wish to return a shared brightness to the supposed darkness of the stranger, to see in the “Far East” of the other a living mirror quite equal to myself.

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Letters: “Srimps”

“Srimps.” That’s all I remember now. Back in the day, there was a guy, a kid, maybe a girl, basically a young adult who didn’t know how to pronounce “shrimp.” We made fun of the person, to their face and behind their back, but it was always “srimp” and it’s a damn shame that after all the fun at someone else’s expense, I can’t remember anything other than “srimp.”

Funny now, how selective the memory can be. Maybe, after a time, most of a lifetime of real events that actually mean something and have lasting value, for the rest we just remember that one distinguishing characteristic we enjoyed the most.

In any event, our conversation on “shrimp” stuck, so today I was in Joey Franco’s old PW Market, a previously v. upscale market for our tony Castro Valley well-to-do. It was bought out by Safeway a few years back and has rapidly become JAS – just another Safeway.

Armed with that backgrounding, picture me now trying to figure out where I was going to locate their shrimp cocktail, if those little glass jars I used to buy as a college student even exist any more. I was near the meat counter, so wandered up to the display case and waited my turn for the meat person to help me.

“Hi, can you tell me if you stock shrimp cocktail?”

“What?”

“You know, those little glass jars of shrimp with the tomato cocktail sauce.”

“Oh, we don’t carry those no more.”

(pause)

“I see. Do you know if it’s stocked anywhere in the store?”

“We don’t carry those no more.” She waited for me to leave.

“Very well, then, what do you tell your customers who would like shrimp cocktail? Do you sell ingredients to make it?”

“You can buy shrimp.” She pointed vaguely to the glass case. I saw only meat in the case.

“Those.”

They had prepackaged cooked shrimp in various grades, in another case below where she’d pointed. She waited for me to leave.

“What about the sauce?”

Oh, those are over THERE.” She pointed to a display of bottled condiments. One brand said “Cocktail sauce.”

“These? These are for shrimp?”

“Yeah.”

I thanked her profusely for all her valuable time. At last, after all these years, another “srimp” mentality, a pudgy white girl with an unfocused expressionless squint who will lean on her glass case until they fire her, and then blame the world for our inability to recognize true quality when we see and hear it.

I picked out the medium grade size, looking fresh and in good condition. $8.99 for about a pound. I know from previous experience with the trots you want to avoid the small economy shrimp packages, because the meat is largely bits and pieces and you can’t tell the freshness or health of the specimens.

I took my shrimp and sauce to the checkout counter with the rest of my basket. The customer behind me said she always uses that sauce and she always adds lemon juice. She must have been an old PW Market customer. At least, a real human being. I thanked her.

As I wrote in a 1994 essay named “Lunch at Ten Fu:

“I believe that we should always try to find a positive in every experience, but it seems unavoidable that every once in a while in life we will stumble across a little vacuum bubble in life’s fabric, a nothingness nodule, as it were.”

At home, I prepared my shrimp cocktail exactly as noted earlier. Best damned shrimp cocktail I ever had. And there’s enough for tomorrow too.

Alex

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Lunch at Ten Fu

reposted from the 1994 essay

Nothingness Nodules

I had an hour to kill while the Apple Computer dealer assembled and tested a new hard disk drive for me. Lunch, I decided, would be a good way to use up an hour, keep my mind off my worries about my computer files at home, and reward myself for having been up most of the night recovering the files from a “crashed” hard drive.

It was an oppressively muggy day, that sort of overcast day when the diffuse light steeps lifelessness into all the colors and makes everything look the same. A lousy day for a drive. Somewhere south on El Camino, I spotted a place calling itself “Ten Fu Chinese Restaurant.” It looked empty, perfect for my contrived, kill-time, contemplative mood. I hung a U-turn and pulled into Ten Fu’s “Parking In Rear” area. This doubled as reserve parking for tenants of the adjacent apartment. A circle of women were holding hands in the middle of the parking lot, communing in some deep spiritual ceremony. The uniformity of blissful smiles assured me this nest of beatitude was best left undisturbed. I pulled around the oblivious circle slowly, parked, and walked cautiously into Ten Fu.

The place seemed deserted. My watch said two-fifteen. Two waiters sprang to life while I waited by the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign. One asked if he could help me. “Is it too late to be seated?”, I asked cheerfully. He dead – panned it: no, sir, not too late, right this way, please.

I was escorted past huge tables for parties of eight or more. My waiter hid me at a little table, adjacent to a drab freestanding folding utility screen. This hid the little workstation where restaurateurs keep the clean ashtrays, toothpicks and ice water. I like to look around, but said this would be fine. There was only one other party in the whole restaurant. We were both on the same side of the folding screen, so they, and a vast expanse of undecorated red wall space, were my principal view. I ordered Szechuan Beef.

Soup came right away; with no time to warm it from the lunch hour “crowd”. It being Saturday, this might have been soup from Friday’s lunch hour. When my mind’s fogged from lack of sleep, I can understand how people who endure periodic bouts of chronic depression must dread knowing what the next bout will do to their attitude. I felt like that about my attitude. I hoped lunch would help. Even so, the soup was still lukewarm-lousy, compellingly evocative of those tired old speculations as to what they really put into this stuff. I sipped at it, tried to ignore the conference at the next table, and soon enough the soup was gone. Time: two-twenty-five.

It seemed there was just nowhere to rest the eyes in this place, but upon my pot of weak tea, a blank red wall, and that oddly inanimate conversation at the table next to mine. I pretended not to listen.

About eight American-born Chinese were talking about one or more church projects. Swell. At best, I am not generally a big booster of churches and church promotions. There was some question as to who would finance all the $20 Bibles which had to be passed out, and as to whether the recipients would get these Bibles up front, or be required to first complete a baptism. Just the sort of distraction I needed to fan my growing restlessness.

After a bout of eavesdropping like this, I will generally begin to feel I am inviting comparison to all those others who don’t cherish (as I do) that grand illusion of privacy. I mused as to whether these joyless folks would ever actually succeed in making one person’s life a little happier or more coherent with their programs and merit Bibles. Who would teach the recipients how to seek wisdom from these books, or seek solace in their words? Who would teach these teachers?

The trouble with everybody else’s religion in America is that those who “have it” are encouraged to substitute concrete literalness for thought, gospel for introspection, and advice-giving for self-examination. They may use the good words to hide from themselves and from their own souls, or they might use the words to manipulate and coerce others in ways the original manuscripters doubtless never conceived. Good old America: situational ethics, formula solutions. If somebody comes with a twelve-gauge to shoot my cow while she’s being milked, hey, what should I do? What should I say? How would the Bible handle this situation? “Plug it into the Bible”. Fractured ideas, disconnected from source or context, “thou shalt nots”, proscriptions and admonitions extracted out of context like so many fragmented files on my disk drive at home which has irretrievably broken its original directory.

In a short while, I get to go home, back up my recovered files onto my new hard drive, and rebuild my directories from scratch: clean slate. Proselytizers can show us the records, they can even direct us to the methodologies, but they can’t teach us how to live. Everybody should learn how to rebuild their own directories once in a while.

I realize I must be tired. I do not usually see myself as so smugly cynical, and it dawns on me that maybe I really am. Time: two-thirty. The Szechuan beef arrives, a generous portion, and warmer than the soup, too, with pork fried rice and topped with a large slab of yummy fried cookie and glazed egg roll. I’d never seen a luncheon garnished with the dessert before. I decide to see how much of the fried rice and beef I can eat by undermining its undisturbed cookie “roof” until the foundation collapses.

The distinguishing thing about the party at the next table, I decide, is that nobody is having a good time. They are not having a meeting after all. They are going through the motions of having a meeting, perhaps because they don’t know how to go about it, or perhaps because they are unwilling volunteers. There is nothing for them to do but let one woman, the apparent “leader”, decide on-the-fly what is to be done, and how she will want them to do it. She patiently instructs them on what everybody’s duties will be, and she does not appear to see any need to address any group member as an individual. I am reminded of grade school kids being herded during a fire drill. If these are missionaries, they’ll find no zeal here.

The conversation lacks any spark of spontaneity, with a carefully metered lifelessness, as if you and I are dividing up chores to mop up some horrible and very distasteful mess – and would really prefer not to be discussing this at all. Very much like discussions about the weather, the presumption of the participants must be that, if it isn’t already a nice day, conditions will eventually improve.

The “leader-lady” is counseling her group that she does not know yet what their brochures will look like, or how they will be printed, but that she will be able to determine what “will be needed” to make the brochures suitable, as soon as she sees the group’s completed effort, which she delegates. The participants’ stony downcast eyes tell the story. They evidently see that she’ll know what she wants them to do when she sees it. Nobody is looking at each other. I realize that this person has no concept whatsoever of how to plan a project, of how to enlist the aid and enthusiasm of the volunteers. The group realizes this too.

I think of the untold human effort which has gone into projects just such as this, based on the simple and flawless premise that life should be happy and purposeful, and that we should be able to find others who can pass on the distilled wisdoms from the discovery process, so we do not all have to re-invent everything from scratch. On the other hand, groups like this are solid evidence that perhaps we should, after all.

A younger man finally interjects with guarded enthusiasm that he has a computer program which could print the Chinese character sets directly onto their brochure. The leader lady ignores him, stating, for some reason, that no matter what the form of the brochure, it must leave space at the bottom for a name and a telephone number. I silently wonder why, imagining that perhaps the leader lady has already invested in a rubber stamp and ink pad, saturated with the blue-black ink of the ’50’s public libraries. Yes, by all means, leave room at the bottom of the form! The young man lapses into silence again.

I see that I shall be able to finish luncheon after all, and so cannot burn up a little more time waiting for a take-home container, or “doggie bag,” as we are so pleased to style it. There is not enough left to take home, so I eat the rest. Like these people at the Bible church group, I am here only because I do not yet want to be “there”, waiting (in my own case) idly for my new hard drive to be set up and formatted. Unlike the folks at the next table, I can look at my watch as often as I want. It is hard to say what they are waiting for, since nothing is happening here for them either.

I believe that we should always try to find a positive in every experience, but it seems unavoidable that every once in a while in life we will stumble across a little vacuum bubble in life’s fabric, a nothingness nodule, as it were. I can pay and leave Ten Fu’s at two-forty-five, and I do.

© Alex Forbes, La Parola July 1994

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Nuclear Night

A shattered night sky ripples and oozes ominously overhead. Strange glowing orange doughnut holes open up in the fabric of the heavens. Pulsing domes of dim red light glow somewhere over the horizon, flicker slowly, and finally fade from sight again. Our commander gets word this attack comes from no nation on Earth. Space aliens? He says we may as well try to get home. Let’s get out of this place. Wait, a dream? What a weird nightmare!

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Jenny Lin “Get Happy” audio CD review

CD: “Get Happy” (Jenny Lin, 18 tracks, Steinway & Sons, 2012)

Frances and Iggy are celebrating their 50th anniversary in our local restaurant. They are both good, solid characters who worked their entire lives, Life probably beat up on them at some point along the way. Frances paints her purplish-red lipstick on with an angular sash and trim brush, Her smile has grown lop-sided over the years. Iggy’s rugged hands are bent and arthritic from decades of heavy work, with which he cups Frances’ hand over the table. They are still both deeply in love. They share decanters of a modest house red. The dining area sound system is playing a melange of old traditional favorites like “Begin the Beguine” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”

Frances rolls her eyes in ecstasy. “Oh, Iggy, ain’t it lovely ta hear these again after all these years?”

Iggy concurs. “Frannie my love, it’s like we was back again at the old high school dance where we was first introduced at.”

Well, no, not really. It isn’t like that at all.

Jenny Lin was born in Taiwan, educated in the United States and Europe, and is an internationally known pianist of considerable talent and some renown. Amazon lists a number of her classical CD’s and “MP3 albums” promenading works of several obscure composers and three I have heard of: Liszt, Schumann and Shostakovitch. I sampled a couple of those. I’d rate her performance as noticeably talented if not enchanting. Sometimes in her keyboard work I hear traces of Debussy. Her published listings also include a number of attempts at popular and movie tunes.

The problem with “Get Happy” is it’s part music and part metaphor: not quite like anything you want to hear again.

It isn’t quite traditional. It’s not trad jazz. It’s not jazz improv, I don’t believe music needs to conform to strictly enforced centuries-old standards. Most of all, music of any genre needs to have integrity, and here “Get Happy” doesn’t quite have what it takes.

In the signature song track “Get Happy,” we keep expecting Lin to segue into “What’s It All About Alfie.” There are too many skipped and rushed notes, too many transitions for transition’s sake, and, worst of all, enough unwarranted show-off embellishments, frills and irrelevant musical lace to make Liberace blush.

One of many problems with this album is that occasionally Lin gets it right, as In the best-remembered bars of the title old favorite “Get Happy,” Lin makes you want to shout “YES!” as she re-creates the core feeling you remember even if you had not heard that song for forty years. But then Lin shatters it with mindless “look at me, I can play good, huh?” riffs that broadcast how she just doesn’t know when to leave well enough alone. She doesn’t know when to play and when to quit.

In that wonderful old Gershwin favorite “Bess You Is My Woman Now,” from Porgy and Bess, Lin’s keyboard work is so good that you really want to believe she’s going to make it work! Here is an incredible love story that listeners of all ages know and depend on for a memorable emotional experience. Lin turns it into sanitized piano lounge music, showing off the pianist’s skill, not the heart and soul of the composer’s gift to us, It’s just music that never distracts the attention of patrons sharing house wine in their own private worlds.

Those of us lucky enough to remember Rogers and Hammerstein’s wonderful musical “The King and I,” or the Yul Brynner movie of the same name, can immediately recall the dramatic contest of wills between the King of Siam and his children’s British tutor, Anna. The story line develops into an electrifying romance. Lin almost turns this song into a “March of the Wooden Soldiers.”

The delightful “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound Of Music, prompts us all to remember Julie Andrews teaching the Von Trapp children the disciplines and joys of harmonized song. Here in particular, in my opinion, Lin ruins that magic with a Niagara of trills, frills, and randomly improvised little embellishments. In monitoring this track I had to re-check iTunes to make sure Lin was still playing the same song I’d selected.

For me, Lin’s “Get Happy” release rarely augments the personal listening experience. It invariably muddies and distracts. It annoys in the same manner as when your sweetheart says “they say it’s going to rain tomorrow” but you have just said “I love you.” Where did that come from?

For all her talents, Lin plays most of her 18 track selections like one of those brilliant autistic kids who has never heard a composition before, but can play it – in metronome perfection with a few off-the-wall frills – after hearing a few bars..

For my money, I believe I’m right on about Lin’s overall performance, but I’m baffled about the rationale behind this release. Perhaps the fact the CD was produced and released by a leading piano manufacturer, rather than by normal recording labels, should have been a tip-off. This NASCAR special has been brought to you by Castrol. Only $15.63 for 18 laps.

Not everyone likes the same kid of music, or asks the same kinds of things from it. So, if perhaps you disagree with me, I hope you’ll buy Iggy and Frances a drink. They’re going to have hangovers tomorrow anyway, so the house red would probably still be a welcome choice.

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Blessings from Home

a vignette by Fred Leeds

Talking to oneself is not always plain crazy; it can sometimes prepare one to greet others as selves. It is simply a matter of greeting the whole human from within. It takes no candle or prayer book, just an ear that’s in tune. Greeting calls out to greeting in the core of the human; the one who will hear is, in essence, the one who speaks. Some may refer to the one who speaks here and hears there, the being represented at once in you and in me, as God. I would rather refer to him as home. So greetings alike to you and to me; blessings, dear reader, all blessings from home.

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Studied Blindness and Art

a vignette by Fred Leeds

To retrieve one’s more natural intention, one must contrive to study blindness. Take the pianist, for example, who creates whole worlds by training his hands to overtake him. Or consider the singer, whose long practice carries her off to nnw expression beyond the fixed sense of speech. Or consider the poet, who dives unaided into the evolving word, confronting meanings beyond the printed certainty of the everyday. Each is taken by a sort of willing surprise; each abandons old eyes to see past mere finish and welcome the new.

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Writing: Quite a Trip

a vignette by Fred Leeds

Pen and hand and head, get ready. Work together now, but don’t get too serious … You can’t fall out of the universe, but writing’s quite a trip. You never know what will happen when you write. First intentions won’t do, and you might, all at once, find the writing writing you. Writing can be a proud thing, a heavy symbolic act, but it can also be a simple snapshot of the human planet, its own naked yearnings and their constant disguise. Like the rising and setting of the sun, it can be a free and easy ritual, a joy and a surprise. You can find yourself by losing yourself in writing, and find that the writing is and has been writing you. I know because it happened to me.

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The Cycle of Equality

a vignette by Fred Leeds

Let’s revisit the proverbial chicken and egg. Each is the once and future source of the other, yet each remains itself. This I call the cycle of equality, a trick of nature which extends to you and me. While we share at once in the original Adam, we represent him separately. Rather than be shackled in conformity to each other, we may reflect the first light of our humanity each in his own true light. And so, dear reader, let’s you and I shine on!

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Tom’s Next Trip

a short short story by Fred Leeds

When we last saw Tom, he had summed up the ancient wisdom of the mutual I in the tender phrase “a heart that moves.” While Tom has turned Buddhist priest in the decade since, he has kept to the simple-hearted ways of that earlier time. In his heart’s timeless core, there still beats the wonder of his trips through time and space, mind and worlds. We catch up with Tom now by a temple in Japan, where he sorts out his visions in more ordinary style. The temple stands tall in the near distance, in elegant white stone.

Tom sits on the bank of a stream beneath a bridge. The bridge is crafted in that stunning yet simple way the Japanese have. Beside Tom lies a scrolled painting of Huineng, the historical Zen master whose teachings were transmitted to Tom mentally by Ju Gun. Ju Gun was a medieval Zen hermit with whom Tom had established telepathic contact, across the centuries and beyond Ju Guns death. The painting was Tom’s own rendering. It revealed the figure of a wise and gentle looking Chinese sage. In the margin of the painting Tom had written these words with the same paintbrush: “Mind essence is the source of all at once. This very mind takes flight in any and all things.”

That was Tom’s summary of the lessons of Huineng. As the stream seems to flow ever more swiftly by, Tom begins to dream. The stream glimmers like something unearthly seeming to lead to a city far away, and he is not sure if it is happening inside or outside his mind. He glimpses in the stream, as in a living mirror, all the persons and faces he has known: faces old and young, male and female, dark and light. They are all somehow his own face, and the face of God.

The horses of the Red Chinese tramp still closer, awakening Tom from his dream. Again there flashes across his minds eye the picture of his own death as he defends the sacred temple. There is a shout and the glint of many weapons. Tom breathes and gets ready to plunge into that other stream, the stream of death and new birth.

“Here I come, Huineng,” says Tom.

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